Thursday, August 31, 2006

Goodbye Everard Willy, Farewell Cock and Cheerio Hugh G. Rection

Firstly, may I apologise for the title of this post. It's very immature and it won't happen again...

According to The Daily Mirror, "joke" surnames are fast disappearing as people change their embarrassing soubriquets through either marriage or deed poll. So, surnames like Smellie (popular in Glasgow), Pigg (popular in Newcastle) and Daft (big in Nottingham) are on the way out.

The article itself has many more terrible puns about men's anatomies than I can manage, so it's worth a read. And it's not too long (as it were).

But more seriously, names make the basis for some very interesting language investigations. There are obvious links between surnames and ethnic/geographical origins, as well as many that link to human characteristics. The significance of naming traditions in different societies is well worth a look at, with the whole issue of women taking their husbands' surnames central to many groups of people.

Then you have first names and the influence of a growing influence from foreign cultures and celebrities: Mohammed is in the top 20 for boys' names now, while Whitney is often a popular choice among girls. Jordan, Chantelle, Preston and Romeo could all be on the up too. A quick search of this blog (use the search bar at the top of the page) should take you to previous posts on this topic and links to top 20 lists of boys' and girls' names that might help you with some research.

Useful for:
EA4C - Language Investigations

Wrinkly coffin-dodgers need not apply

New legislation coming into force in October means that job adverts may need to be radically overhauled to avoid discrimination against older workers, according to the BBC News website. Terms such as "energetic" and "youthful" face the chop, and presumably "Must have own teeth" is set to go as well.

Age-related language is often overlooked when we focus on Language & Representation in ENA1, so this could prove a valuable area of research. Is there a tendency to label older people with demeaning terms such as "crumblies", "senile old gits" and "has beens"? And if so, are these labels out of proportion to those applied to younger people "hoodies", "yobs" etc. ?

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation

Muffin tops, salad dodgers and munters

With the new Chambers Dictionary released in a couple of weeks, there's an article in today's Guardian about some of the new (and not so new) words set to be included. What makes this article a bit more interesting than the usual spate of new words articles every time a dictionary comes out, is that it has a sociolinguistic spin at the end.

According to Dr Pia Pichler from Goldsmiths College, many of the new words betray a derogatory representation of women, far outnumbering the derogatory words for men. For those of you who have looked at Language and Representation in ENA1, the name Julia Stanley might ring bells. Her research in the 1970s suggested that the number of pejorative terms for women outweighed those for men by a factor of about 10 to 1. So for every "nobhead" there were ten "sluts", "hoes" and "mooses"...or something like that.

What this article seems to suggest is that this lexical over-representation is still evident: perhaps it's even increasing because of the huge amount of new words and phrases used to describe female bodies. So, the obsession with trying to look like an orange-skinned celebrity nonentity (like Jordan, Chantelle or those strange looking girls from Atomic Kitten) has led to all sorts of new words and phrases to describe processes of hair removal ("Brazilian"), breast enhancement ("tit tape") and skin colour ("permatan") but has also led to new terms for those women who don't make the grade or whose bodies don't fit the skinny, plastic template: "bingo wings" for wobbly bits on the underarm; "muffin tops" for those outpourings of flesh over the top of too-tight belts; "salad dodgers" for people who don't follow diets.

So years on from Julia Stanley's research, do we still have the same level of over-representation for terms used to describe women and their bodies? How do we find out? Well, don't rely on other people's research. Do what Julie Blake has always suggested on her Language Legend blog and DIY! With all sorts of new ways of researching language - using google to find out the popularity of certain new words, or using online corpora to analyse language use in written or spoken texts - you can find out if particular patterns exist. And then you can work out if it means women are still the target of the arsenal of nasty words, or if men are finding themselves the victims of new pejorative terms as well.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Language & Representation
EA4C - Language Investigation
ENA5 - Language Change
ENA6 - Language Debates

Monday, August 28, 2006


Well done to everyone who got their A Level results. I think this was the best set of results we've had so far, so thanks for all your hard work and good luck in the future! Many of you are going on to do English Language/ Linguistics at Uni so make sure you stay in touch and feed us your knowledge via the blog.

And well done to those of you who got your AS results. These were also very good overall, but not quite as many top grades as we'd have liked, so we'll go through these in detail with you when you get back. So don't worry just yet...

Monday, August 21, 2006

Accents hold the comedy key

In a piece of research carried out by linguists at Aberdeen University and reported here in The Guardian, it's been discovered that a person's regional accent can have a major influence on how funny they are perceived to be.

Rather like Howard Giles' famous matched guise experiment into accents, this research measures how "warm" or "cold" the speakers are perceived to be. As The Guardian reports, "After asking 4,000 people to listen to the same joke in 11 different regional accents, researchers from the University of Aberdeen concluded that the Brummie accent, as typified by the likes of Frank Skinner, Jasper Carrott and Lenny Henry, is Britain's funniest, appealing to more than a fifth of those questioned".

Received Pronunciation (R.P.) comes out at the bottom, below accents from Manchester and Glasgow. So it's not just the way you tell 'em, it's the voice you tell 'em in.

Useful for:
ENA5 - Language Varieties

Friday, August 18, 2006

"PC gone mad" parts 301 & 302

Two stories in yesterday's papers re-hash that tired old phrase "Political Correctness gone mad". In one piece in the Daily Mirror, council workers in Newcastle have been "re-educated" about their use of terms such as "pet", "love" and "hinny" (Read the article for some more on this obscure northern lexeme! "This political correctness is getting ridiculous," claims one rent-a-quote Tory MP in response to the story. My normal reaction to stories like this is to see them as part of a right wing agenda which seeks to discredit any attempt to get people to look at the language they use and how it might offend others. "Common sense" ideas about "PC gone mad" are put forward, but really they're just reactionary ramblings that see any attempt to remove racist or sexist language as part of some weird communist plot. But is that all that's going on in this case? Another element to this story is the issue of dialect and identity. As one council worker puts it, "It's like they are trying to kill the Geordie language. It's totally bloody crackers". This point is developed later in the article:

But Peter Arnold, 62, chairman of the Northumbrian Language Society, said: "I am horrified that these words, which are part of the native language of people living in Northumbria, are to be banned. It is just part of the way ordinary people speak.

"Some think the Geordie dialect is sexist and male oriented. It then follows that people think Geordies are male chauvinist pigs. This is a mistake.

"People who use these words - hinny, which is a term of endearment whose origin is lost in time - are speaking what is to them the first language of many people from this part of the world. It is part of our heritage."

The connections between dialect and identity are riddled with issues of self-esteem, regional insecurities and perceptions of domination by metropolitan elites (in other words, that London's New Labour-supporting middle classes want to control the language we all speak).

So, should regional varieties of English be allowed to keep their old-fashioned and perhaps patronising terms? Is it even a good idea to try to regulate language use in this way? Can it even be done? And who is making these decisions anyway?

In another article, this time in The Guardian, an employee of Orange is being investigated for his remarks on a web discussion site in which he pokes fun at what he calls a "lefty lexicon" or what he sees as the abuse of language by "lefties" and especially the "rights industry", according to the article. Everyone's entitled to an opinion, you might say, but if you're the "community affairs manager" of a huge mobile phones company should you be able to vent your spleen about minority groups (many of whom are your customers)?

And in today's Mirror, there's a really great guide to the different terms of endearment used around the country. Click here for the online version (less impressive to look at than the print version which I'll try to scan and post up on the site in the next week or two).

Your views on this whole issue of patronising terms and language control would be welcome as comments (click below to add your points).

Useful for: ENA1 - Language & Representation ENA5 - Language Change

Tuesday, August 15, 2006


For those of you interested in Child Language, here's an extract from a piece of research reported in The British Psychological Society digest which gives some info about a boy of 4 with incredibly advanced reading skills yet a mental age of just one and a half.

If you remember the Cognitive theory as proposed by Piaget and his followers, language development occurs as part of a child's wider cognitive development. If that's the case then how does something like this occur?

Researchers at the University of London’s School of Languages have observed a four-year-old boy with autistic spectrum disorder who rarely speaks spontaneously and shows little evidence of verbal comprehension but who can read aloud precociously – a phenomenon that’s known as hyperlexia.

On psychological tests, the boy is found to have a mental age of just one and half years and yet he can correctly pronounce irregular words not normally encountered by children before the age of nine. Irregular words like ‘yacht’ don’t follow the usual letter-to-sound rules and his
correct pronunciation of them betrays a level of linguistic development far beyond that predicted by his mental age.

Even when presented with novel Greek letters, he attempts to read them as English letters and numbers. “This behaviour is possibly indicative of the type of driven, compulsive, and indiscriminate reading behaviour associated with hyperlexia”, the researchers said. Indeed, the boy’s mother recalled that her son looked through newspapers with an unusual intensity before he was even two years old.

Because the boy doesn’t communicate it is difficult to gauge his actual comprehension of the words he can read. Nonetheless it remains remarkable that his reading ability “just happened”, as his mother put it, and the researchers concluded “Existing cognitive accounts are inadequate to account for the development of literacy in this child”.

Useful for:
ENA1 - Child Language Acquisition

Black British English vs MLE

The latest episode of Lexis is out and it features an interview with Ife Thompson about lots of issues connected to Black British English, i...